In a ruling that could torpedo the case against the West Texas polygamist sect, a state appeals court Thursday said authorities had no right to seize more than 440 children in a raid on the splinter group's ranch last month.
It was unclear how many children were affected by the ruling. The state took 464 children into custody in April, but Thursday's ruling directly applied to the children of 48 sect mothers represented by the Texas Rio Grande Legal Aide, said Cynthia Martinez of the agency. About 200 parents are involved in the polygamy case.
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that the state offered "legally and factually insufficient" grounds for the "extreme" measure of removing all children from the ranch, from babies to teenagers.
The state never provided evidence that the children were in any immediate danger, the only grounds in Texas law for taking children from their parents without court approval, the appeals court said.
It also failed to show evidence that more than five of the teenage girls were being sexually abused, and never alleged any sexual or physical abuse against the other children, the court said.
It was not immediately clear whether the children scattered across foster facilities statewide might soon be reunited with parents. The ruling gave Texas District Judge Barbara Walther 10 days to vacate her custody order, and the state could appeal.
'They're very thrilled'
FLDS spokesman Rod Parker said sect members feel validated, having argued from the beginning that they were being persecuted for their beliefs.
"They're very thrilled. They're looking forward to seeing the children returned," he said.
Julie Balovich of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid said she expected attorneys for all of the parents to seek to join the ruling.
"It's a great day for Texas justice. This was the right decision," said Balovich, who represented 38 families. Balovich was joined by several smiling mothers who declined to comment at a news conference outside the courthouse.
Every child at the Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado was taken into state custody more than six weeks ago, after Child Protective Services officials argued that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and groomed boys to become adult perpetrators. Only a few dozen of the roughly 440 children seized are teenage girls; half were under 5.
The appeals court said the state was wrong to consider the entire ranch as an individual household and that the state could not take all the children from a community on the notion that some parents in the community might be abusers.
"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the court said in its ruling.
The court said that although five girls had become pregnant at age 15 or 16, the state gave no evidence about the circumstances of the pregnancies. It noted that minors as young as 16 can wed in Texas with parental consent, and even younger children can marry if a court approves it.
Balovich said the appeals court "has stood up for the legal rights of these families and given these mothers hope that their families will be brought back together."
Deciding on an appeal
CPS spokesman Patrick Crimmins said department attorneys had just received the ruling and would make any decision about an appeal later.
Even before Thursday's ruling, the state's allegations of teenage girls being pushed into sex appeared to be deflating.
Of the 31 sect members CPS once said were underage mothers, 15 have been reclassified as adults — one was 27 years old — and an attorney for a 14-year-old girl said in court that she had no children and was not pregnant, as officials previously asserted.
The custody case has been chaotic from the beginning.
CPS has struggled with even the identities of the children for weeks and scattered them across foster facilities all over the sprawling state, with some siblings separated by as much as 600 miles.
The sect children were removed en masse during a raid that began April 3 after someone called a domestic abuse hot line claiming to be a pregnant abused teenage wife. The girl has not been found and authorities are investigating whether the calls were a hoax.
The FLDS, which teaches that polygamy brings glorification in heaven, is a breakaway of the Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago. Members contend they are being persecuted by state officials for their religious beliefs.